Fascism and militarized security states are the norm in 2032 and only Dissident X can stop it.
Dissident X, written and illustrated by brothers Jacob and Arnold Pander, is a layered story about the rise of corporate fascism and how quickly voices of dissent can be smothered by profit-centric elites. Originally, the story was published in the mid-90s with the title Triple X, but this Dark Horse published, re-released version includes some updated artwork and colors. In many ways, the story can be perceived as an upgraded take on George Orwell’s 1984, since it has a more accurate depiction of modern technology and how corporations and governments encroach individuals’ rights, but its attempts to recreate the same sense of dread and emotional melancholy fall somewhat flat.
At the center of all of the action is Hans Nobel, a techno-activist with a photographic memory. Readers first meet Hans right before a massive protest in New York is brutally shut down by the all-powerful, SS-esque Securcorps. With technology controlling every aspect of people’s lives and individuals who opt-out being charged with noncompliance, Echo- a pro-revolutionary organization trying to gin up resistance in American streets- is relying on Hans to memorize a crucial line of code capable of taking down the Nucleus. To avoid capture after learning the code, Hans leaves the wasted New York behind and lands in Amsterdam — a city undergoing its own corporate-fueled takeover on the brim of chaos- to bide his time until he can strike back.
Hans has some likable qualities; he’s a truly empathetic person who wants to help others, but it seems the Pander brothers are a bit unclear on what kind of protagonist they want to create. Near the beginning of the story there’s a throwaway line of inner monologue where Hans mentions that he’s a journalist, but the fact is quickly overshadowed when he mentions his special abilities and cool code name, Recall. It’s not until roughly 200 pages later do we see Hans finally do something journalistic; since the setup was so insignificant, it feels incredibly jarring that, all of a sudden, this individual we’ve seen running away from mercenaries and talking about the importance of acting is a thoughtful, prose-driven individual who believes the pen is mightier than the sword.
Having the hero of a story be an activist-journalist, someone who is willing to speak truth to corporate power and has no problem inserting himself into the middle of situations, is very fitting for this story — but at no point did I find myself truly invested in Hans’ well being. In fact, the story’s over reliance on Han’s inner monologue —constantly telling the audience what to think instead of showing them — is a detriment as Dissident X drags along.
Where the book truly excels is as a piece of graphic art. With a background in commercial directing, the Pander brothers have a strong eye for images that perfectly lends itself to the dystopian future. Towering skyscrapers and disheveled alleyways add a grimy, punkish vibe to the story that enhances the feelings of hopelessness and overwhelming pressure that the resistance feel on a daily basis. Equally important, the brothers excel at allowing the characters to express themselves through their emotions and facial expressions in a really heartfelt way. Each character visibly responds to their situation in a different way, and that’s a nice, distinguishing detail to include in such a massive story with so many people.
None of the supporting characters are necessarily likable- or unlikable since they’re all given such forgettable personalities- but the biggest woe is likely the way the Pander brothers handle Klaara. An objective journalist who finds herself increasingly dismayed by the propagandizing, pro-corporate slant of her employer, World Today, Klara is the perfect protagonist on paper. An independent, intelligent individual who has no problem taking on the powers that be, she is given incredibly choppy dialogue and depicted in a way that highlights just how ill-equipped the Pander brothers are at creating female characters. At one point, Klaara is depicted at home, going over clues for a larger story, and she’s just casually in her underwear and bra in a way that doesn’t add anything to the narrative, it’s just a cheap, easy example of a strong character who was sullied thanks to the all-powerful male gaze.
For a story that has so much to say about a hierarchical society and the smoldering resentment of the masses, it’s ironic and to Dissident X’s detriment that the Pander brothers weren’t able to create more memorable female characters. Nina, a businesswoman/assassin who plays a role in the corporate takeover of the world, is so stereotypical it hurts. Not only does she flaunt about how she uses her body to manipulate her boss into trusting her even more, but the only other independent relationship she has in the book is also heavily based on her sexual behavior. She’s clearly a clever woman, rising to the tops of the corporate ranks, and knows how to throw a punch or shoot an arrow, but the Pander brothers don’t really give her more to do than following orders and dropping some suggestive dialogue.
Even Renee, a member of Hans’ Amsterdam friend group who is vigorous and outspoken about the ongoing corruption, is quickly martyred off in a way that makes her feel used and discarded rather than inspiring and self-aware. Sure, her death does have some dramatic weight and moves the story along since her act of protest provokes a counter-attack by the outraged resistance, but it ultimately becomes nothing more than sad-boy motivation for Lucien- the male leader of the gang- instead of a deeper look at depression and thoughts of self-sacrifice in a claustrophobic world.
Ultimately, Dissident X has a lot it is trying to say, it’s just not the most effective receptacle to get that message across. There are a lot of B-plots going on in the background that help the creators emphasize their points, but including so many characters and showcasing so many different sides of this dystopia makes Dissident X a chore to actually finish. The Panders clearly understand the dangers presented by capitalism run amok and the need for transparency and solidarity in the face of disappearing civil rights, but the hollow characters and cheap dialogue make it hard to fall into the narrative they’ve created despite the fact that this frightening situation is always possible in the the real world.